Earlier this month we introduced a series of articles on the Science of Learning. In Part 1 of the series we examined the
role of neuroscience in education,
and in Part 2 we discussed how the brain learns. Today we
address the role of emotion and mindset in learning.
Emotion and the Limbic System
Fear, frustration, embarrassment, melancholy, stress – any of these emotions can create a barrier between students and their own memory and reasoning
capabilities. Scientists now believe that emotion is the on/off switch for learning.
The limbic system, located in the lower part of the brain, interprets the emotional value of incoming stimuli. Depending on the limbic system’s
interpretation of the stimuli, it either opens or closes access to the cortical function in the higher parts of the brain.
The limbic system operates in “fight or flight” mode. If it senses “danger” – for example, when students feel insecure or anxious – certain chemicals flow
into the synapses to shut down access to other brain functions. “Danger” means flight: there’s no time to think. Students mistakenly think they have a poor
memory, but in reality, their emotions have sabotaged them.
Conversely, if the limbic system says, “safe” or “happy,” the brain opens up to knowledge, imagination and creativity. When learners feel confident, a
different set of chemicals flow into the synapses, enabling them to work quickly and well. This is the “fight” reaction: the belief that “I can handle
Fixed or Growth Mindset
A similar phenomenon occurs in the brain based on the student’s mindset. According to renowned psychologist Professor Carol Dweck, who has published the leading research on mindset, a person’s pre-conceived theories about their own
intelligence have a profound influence on their motivation to learn.
In Part 2 of this series, we
saw that intelligence is not fixed. No matter how many synapses a neuron has, it has the potential to grow more, and to strengthen the connections between
them. Students who embrace this fact have a "growth" mindset, which leads to a motivating sense of empowerment. Students in “growth” mode make more effort
to build their abilities, viewing failure as a natural part of the learning process.
By contrast, students with a “fixed” mindset see their intelligence level as unchanging. They are primarily concerned with proving that they’re smart – or
hiding that they're not. Therefore, they tend to avoid situations in which they might fail. They don’t recover well from setbacks. They prefer tasks they
can already do well, avoiding challenges that could lead to mistakes. For example, a “good” student may turn away from “hard” subjects – such math and
science – in order to preserve her “smart” status. Likewise, students who’ve been told they have a low IQ, or have performed poorly in academics in the
past, tend to believe they’re doomed to failure, and their motivation level drops dramatically.
Applying This Science in the Classroom
So how do you put this knowledge into effect?
Support a Positive Emotional State
– Stay positive and endorse optimism. Create a “safe” environment, in which students feel secure about their own abilities and are free to make mistakes.
Bring joy into your classroom.
Teach a Growth Mindset
– With a rudimentary understanding of the brain’s ability to grow, your students can be re-energized to make an effort and feel more confident in their
Focus on Improvement
– Value effort and improvement, over perfection. Every student can progress – focus on that advancement rather than on the end result.
– The wrong kind of praise can actually lead to a fixed mindset and discourage future advancement. Praise effort – not intelligence. Praise
mistakes, as long as there was effort behind them.
Look for our review of Professor Dweck’s latest book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, coming to the Envision Resource Center next month.
Visitors will have a chance to win the book!
Also, please don’t forget to return for our future installments in this series, coming soon:
Part 4 – Brain Plasticity at Different Ages
- Part 5 – Do Girls’ Brains Differ from Boys’ Brains?
- Part 6 – “Left Brain” or “Right Brain”?